Or maybe I should say, old school style with modern outfitters . . .
As the gorge narrowed the wind picked up, and the air temperature noticeably dropped. The calming frequency of the soft rush of the water shifted timbre. Now cascading, surging ever faster downward, as the amplitude of the waves, both in size and pitch, increased to a deafening roar.
We hung on tight with both hands as the V-shaped bow and rigid hull sliced into the first wave, but the second was much larger. And the small vessel skirted straight up its crest, reminiscent of a mighty ocean sailing ship in a surging Atlantic storm, but in miniature.
At the oarsman’s skillful command, the boat shifted sideways as it rolled down into the trough in time for the next wave to crest high above our heads. Crashing down, completely drenching us, the flare of the hull offering no protection. Filling the open compartments to the frame’s brim.
Our laughter could be heard above the roar of the rapids as we bailed.
This seemingly off position, had actually set the boat up to cruise through the remainder of the rapids at full speed, jockeying through and over each successive wave of those class IV rapids.
My new friend and I had the luck that day of riding in the Dory.*
A more traditional boat, more of the Wesley Powell era. A boat that actually lets you fully feel the waves. Experience them. The rafts were just as much fun, but they tended to say atop the waves and dampened their buffeting strength.
Drifting down this river is an incredible experience. And many don’t realize this river has the deepest gorge in North America – even deeper than the Grand Canyon!
Hells Canyon lives up to it reputation.
And, I was on a four-day trip down the Snake River, through that canyon. Eighty-miles of riding that serpentine border between Idaho and Oregon.
The canyon, carved by the Snake, is ten miles wide and the river’s gorge runs 7,993 feet deep. The top waters flow more than mile below the canyon’s west rim on the Oregon side and some 7,400 feet below the peaks of the Seven Devils Mountain range on the east, with the highest peak, He Devil, rising to 9,393 feet above sea level. The depths of the water can reach 105 feet.
As with much of the geological history in this area, it began with volcanoes emerging from the Pacific Ocean some 300 million years ago. Tectonic plates collided and a high plateau formed. The Snake, a skilled sculptor, took over from there.
But describing the physical features doesn’t quite convey the feelings. A small group of strangers, brought together by a professional outfitter, would soon be family.
You sort of get into a rhythm on the river. Hot coffee. Breakfast. Break camp. Load up. And it’s off on another day of peace. The soothing current. The quiet the remoteness brings. The thrill of the rapids.
The majestic scenery. Rocky barren cliffs of Idaho contrast with sparse Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines, Larch, and Douglas Fir lining the north-facing slopes and connecting streams of Oregon. The slopes leading to the water’s edge are primarily covered with bunchgrasses and shrubs. But there are also many wildflowers in bloom. Prickly Pear Cacti, Penstemons, Paintbrushes, Phlox, Bartonberries, and MacFarlane’s Four O’clock.
The wildlife, in all of its abundance, looks on. Perhaps puzzled by these strangers. Two-legged on land, navigating the water in strangely shaped and colored crafts.
I was marveling over the first Black Bear we saw. More cinnamon in coloration, as there are many variations. And one of four we would see. Along with the Mule Deer, Osprey, and Bald Eagles, just to name a few.
Each day, the gear-boat headed out first, and the pilots would choose our next campsite. And have it all set up for us when we would straggle in. Just grab your gear and pick a tent.
We rapidly became a tight-knit community.
Once settled, you could fish, swim, and simply enjoy each other’s company. There were many a campfire story to be told, and it’s fascinating hearing the tales of other lives. All from different cities, different backgrounds, different life stages. Yet all brought together by the River. We toasted it frequently. And enjoyed meals worthy of any fine restaurant. Even better.
Everything tastes better in the wild.
No light pollution from any town or city, we had the full panorama of the night sky. Billions of stars bright. Tiny heavens, each reflecting in the waters below.
Back on the river, at daylight, and in calmer waters, if you wanted more of a challenge, you could glide the water in an inflatable kayak. We had some brave ones.
We also were able to enjoy leaping from high rocky outcroppings, where the water was known to be of a safe depth, places where our feet would never touch bottom of those clear blue waters.
We’re definitely not the first to visit this enchanted land. A Clovis arrowhead point found here indicates the presence of indigenous peoples dating back some 15,000 years, but a firm date comes from a rock shelter at Bernard Creek, dated back to 7,100 years ago.
Early-day settlers included the Nez Perce, the Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Paiute, and Cayuse Indians. These tribes left behind their own stories, painted and caved onto and into the rocks of the canyon.
We disembarked and hiked to some of those pictograms on the canyon walls, paintings usually made with red ochre, or black or yellow dyes. We were also witness to the ancient’s petroglyphs, those carvings into the stone left on boulders alongside the river. Reciting tales of a hunt, or a visit from neighboring tribes, or perhaps the full creation story of Turtle Island.
Of course, the Europeans finally arrived. Trying to homestead, raise cattle or sheep, or search for gold.
I’m happy to see much of this land is preserved for all of the public to enjoy now, instead of being exploited. I saw only a few ranches and homes. Access is restricted, mainly to the water or by private plane.
Remoteness preserves this natural treasure.
One sad disaster does need to be viewed with reverence. And it’s a reminder to all of where misplaced greed and prejudice may end. It was the Chinese Massacre.
In May of 1887, 34 Chinese gold miners were ambushed and killed in the area. It seems a few white men decided they would murder all of the Chinese prospectors and steal their gold. I was happy to see a memorial erected on their behalf. Seeing the dark is sometimes necessary to bathe in the light.
And there is much light to see here.
How does one describe the beauty of a river? Well, here’s a quote from Angela Abraham, but even this, I think, still falls a little short.
“The river is a slice of mellow harmony amid the fragrant leaves. It flows like time, always onward, always toward its destiny. One day these placid waters will enter that great ocean, each drop a vital part of what becomes the mighty aquatic world. In the shade of the boughs we wade in, feeling the welcome kiss of coolness, watching the eddies that swirl and disappear. The water surface is livened by brief crescents of white that are fish arcing as they swim. Our eyes travel downstream, caressing the dapples that bring the shine of the water to a hue so homely. I stifle a giggle. This [landscape] is so far from the home we left, but right now it doesn’t matter a bit. This moment is my own and right now, in this flash of the time continuum, I am at home.”
I have to say that this experience was one of my great adventures, and it was made all the more enjoyable because it was essentially worry-free. I don’t often make recommendations of any business enterprises, but I’ll make an exception here. ***
I didn’t have to own all of the necessary equipment. I didn’t have to learn all of the skills required to navigate a technically challenging river. I didn’t have to plan and cook the gourmet meals. Didn’t have to prepare for any type of emergency. I simply was able to take it all in, enjoy every moment, bond with fellow travelers and crew alike, and have undying gratitude for the next sunset . . .
* The Dory is defined as “a flat-bottomed boat with high flaring sides, sharp bow, and deep V-shaped transom.” Adding from Wiki: “The western river dory, though sharing features with sea dories, is adapted for a different place and purpose. The key differentiating features are wider beam, more flare to prevent waves coming on board, and extensive built-in buoyancy/storage areas with water-resistant hatches to shed water and keep the boat afloat in the event of a capsize. Western river dories have additional special features such as strong rowlocks, long oars, and long blade oars to operate in the highly aerated waters in rapids. In rapids the master rower faces down river to see the rock and or hydraulic obstacles. In a rapid the oars are often used to steer the boat as well as to propel it.”
** While this pic shows another boat going by, we encountered few on the trip, and only one other rafting group that I remember. The Dory I road in is on the far end of this picture showing the line of boats we used.
*** The Outfitter I Recommend is Western River Expeditions
If you would like further reading on Hells Canyon see:
Photos: The photos are all my own. Without having permission to reveal other persons on this trip, I elected to select photos that would not show any identities. Except for me in the last pic, of course 🙂
With regard to the petroglyphs, I used a photo editor function called “glowing edges” to highlight the carvings that were not very visible – the centuries of wind and rain having worn the rock faces severely.
Also note: We were not allowed to take pictures while going through the Class IV rapids. We had to hang on with both hands then 🙂
Overall, I tried to highlight the river in all its majesty. I hope you can get a sense for the feel of it.